‘Breaking Bad’ Season Five: “Granite State”

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“Why don’t you just die already?”

For once, the Sunday night television conversation was centered around a different series last night — Dexter, and how utterly disappointing the finale was.

I’ve only seen the first season of Dexter, but I know that the show has disappointed fans for the past few seasons, and it’s for the very reasons that Breaking Bad hasn’t (as Entertainment Weekly pointed out). Breaking Bad is spending its final episodes tightening the screws, dealing with the consequences of our antiheroes’ actions, and killing off a few important figures in this world. After last week’s wrenching dispatching of Hank in the masterful “Ozymandias,” there’s another death in “Granite State,” and while the deceased party isn’t exactly as much of a fixture on Breaking Bad as Dean Norris was, in her own way, she’s integral.

Dexter‘s series finale occurred on the same night that Breaking Bad won a well-deserved Emmy for Best Drama, and an equally well-deserved award for Anna Gunn’s acting, which has always been phenomenal but has really kicked into high gear for Season Five. (Her stellar work in “Fifty-One” has now been matched by “Ozymandias.”) After six years, Breaking Bad has evolved from hidden gem to water cooler phenom and, finally, Emmys champion. It’s particularly poignant that the show has found both its largest audience and the pinnacle of its critical applause right at the bitter end — but better late than never, right? As the show itself is starting to prove in these grim final episodes, sometimes justice does get served, even if it’s too little, too late.

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Ironically enough, Breaking Bad‘s Emmy win aired opposite one of the least Breaking Bad-y episodes of them all, a willfully offbeat hour following the climactic “Ozymandias” and preceding the true finale next week. Last week already took care of the major tensions on Breaking Bad, so whatever happens from here is icing on the cake. I had no idea what to expect of the limbo episode “Granite State,” except that it would take Walt to New Hampshire at some point and probably catch us up to the flash-forwards. “Granite State” is a cinematic episode — even in a rather cinematic series like Breaking Bad, it stands out as being more like a movie than a TV show. The major characters are all separated — notice how we don’t see any of the show’s original cast members in a scene together, even once? That’s rare on TV.

Instead, we get a rare “special guest”-type appearance from a movie star, Robert Forster, and glimpses at the rest of the surviving cast, but once again, this show is focused heavily on Walter and Jesse — albeit in different states and very different places. Both are isolated in a prison-style environment — Jesse’s in an actual cage, while Walt fenced is in with the knowledge that leaving the safety of his new home means he’ll be caught by the police. Neither can contact their loved ones — at least, not without consequences. There are few environments more opposite to New Mexico’s desert landscapes, so ingrained in Breaking Bad‘s visuals, than wintery New Hampshire, again making “Granite State” feel like a “very special episode.”breaking-bad-granite-state-robert-forster-bryan-cranston

So what do we get here? First, we pick up with Saul’s disappearance at the hands of the vacuum cleaner salesman with a set of skills entirely unrelated to cleaning carpets. (Though you could see his knack for making criminals vanish as sucking them up so that they’re never seen again.) He’s played by Robert Forster, the kind of star who isn’t too distracting to pop up on a show that really never relies on familiar faces, and a guy whose baggage we know from a lot of other crime movies. We can infer that this guy has seen a lot, though he does admit that Walt is his “hottest” client ever. He’s just one element making “Granite State” feel like Breaking Bad: The Movie.

Saul is planning a move to Nebraska, and in further un-Saul behavior, his best advice for Walt is to turn himself in. The man who has a cockamamie way to slip out of every jam is finally schemeless. Walt attempts to threaten Saul but is interrupted by a cancer-fueled coughing fit, rendering him much less intimidating. None of the old rules apply anymore — Saul is finally able to stand up to Heisenberg with a simple, “It’s over,” and Walt isn’t in a position where he can do much harm in retaliation. The chipper, skeezy lawyer from those TV commercials has finally been broken.

So Walt travels up to New Hampshire via propane tank — not exactly the first class travel you’d expect from a multimillionaire — with Robert Forster planning monthly visits with supplies. As soon as he’s gone, Walt is ready to ignore the vacuum salesman’s wisdom and head directly into the nearest town, Heisenberg hat and all… but changes his mind when he gets to the gate. There’s no hurry. He’ll go tomorrow.

And then months pass… and…breaking-bad-granite-state-walt-phone

Meanwhile, Jesse is currently an involuntarily guest at the Hotel Uncle Jack, spending his days cooking that infamous blue meth and his nights trying like hell to escape. Todd tends to Jesse, treating him like a shiny new pet, and even when Uncle Jack wants to get rid of him for being a rat, Todd is desperate to keep him alive. Uncle Jack guesses that it’s because Todd is sweet on Lydia, but is that the only reason? As Uncle Jack points out, this crew of lowlife Nazis is now richer than they could have imagined, so selling meth is now an unnecessary liability. (Besides, haven’t they been witness to enough to realize that it’s not a particularly wise enterprise?) Perhaps Todd still wants to make Walt proud, or maybe he just isn’t very good at anything besides killing people and needs a hobby. Regardless, this is the episode where Todd finally comes into his own as a character — a character complicated and unique enough that he could probably carry his own movie or TV show, actually.

While Todd does a lot of creepy things in “Granite State,” the one I found creepiest was taking up tea-drinking to emulate (and possibly impress?) Lydia. The two meet in the cafe Lydia favors for all her shady dealings with meth manufacturers. She refuses to sit opposite Todd, which must be a blow to his fantasies, opting for the much more conspicuous back-to-back “talking to an empty chair” meeting. Lydia has decided the risks are too high to continue working with Todd, but when she hears that his cooks with Jesse are yielding meth in the 90% purity bracket, she pauses.breaking-bad-granite-state-todd-jesse-plemonsThe interaction is another reason “Granite State” feels cinematic — Todd and Lydia are new characters, so to see them alone, moving on with business as usual while the rest of the cast is stuck between rocks and some very hard places, widens the scope of the show beyond any of the original cast. Next week will likely put a stop to Todd and Lydia’s empire, but for now, it feels like the story could continue on without Walt, Jesse, or any of the rest. As with Gray Matter, Walt helped to create something and now it has taken on a life of its own; he is all but forgotten by those who are taking it to the next level. I haven’t seen enough of The Wire to make an apt comparison, but from what I’ve heard, this is kind of what it’s like — if there were another season of Breaking Bad, we’d see how Walt’s actions from long ago affect a whole new set of people with a whole new set of problems.

But for now, we’re still dealing with Jesse Pinkman. As it often does, Breaking Bad corrected a possible shortcoming with a past episode in the latest — I felt that “Rabid Dog” glossed over Jesse’s confession to Hank, which seemed like a pivotal moment for both characters, as Jesse had to wrestle with the evil that he’d done while Hank discovered more of Walt’s monstrous actions. One question left hanging was exactly how much Jesse told Hank — we had no reason to believe that his confession actually confessed everything. But apparently it did — here, we see Jesse cop to Gale’s murder, which was his most cold-blooded act (and the most likely to get him sent away for a very long time). He also gives the police details on Drew Sharp’s murder by Todd — which has us wonder, now that Hank and Gomez are dead, if that case is still unsolved.

Oh, and villainy alert: Uncle Jack and his crew mock Jesse throughout the entirety of his confession, drawing a distinct line between their criminality and Walt and Jesse’s. (Though Jesse was more sensitive, Walt didn’t take death as lightly as Uncle Jack either.) While Uncle Jack has never been an endearing character, this scene made him all kinds of revolting, and if anyone on this show needs to take a trip to Bermuda next week, at this point it’s clearly him.breaking-bad-granite-state-jesse-andrea-dies

Neither Uncle Jack nor Todd has been fleshed out enough to approach Gus Fring-level villainy, but they certainly are despicable, as “Granite State” makes an effort to prove. Not long after bringing Jesse multiple flavors of ice cream, feeding him like a pet, Jesse tries to escape and Todd shows him what happens to a bad rabid problem dog when it tries to run away. Its girlfriend gets murdered. (Wait, what? Harsh!) And so we say R.I.P. to Andrea, who has never been even a Jane-level presence on the show, and yet, as a symbol, means even more. Walt has long claimed that he’s in the “empire business” for his family, and along the way, Jesse also adopted a surrogate family that he came to care about as much as Walt cared about his. In Jesse’s case, though, he actually made efforts to protect them, isolating himself from Brock and Andrea so that they wouldn’t get hurt.

Like Andrea, Brock is more of a symbol than an actual character — Walt poisoned him, and when Jesse found out about it, it was the last straw in their tense relationship, turning them into enemies at last. Jesse has been abandoned by his biological family and manipulated and betrayed by his surrogate father, but as long as he kept Brock and Andrea out of harm’s way, there was still something pure that he cared for in this world. When Walt talked Jesse into letting Andrea and Brock go in the earlier half of this season, he may have been acting out of selfish interests, but he was also right. Brock and Andrea are Jesse’s weakness, and when evildoers find out about it, they’ll use them as leverage. Meth is poison, after all, and Andrea herself decided to use it long ago. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have met Jesse Pinkman. And she wouldn’t be dead. Even this minor character is, in a way, an agent of her own fate, even though many others had a hand in it. Though he came to love her, Jesse’s initial intention was to get a recovering Andrea to buy his product. It was a malicious intent, and now, at last, he has paid for it. (With interest.) No bad deed goes unpunished on this series… even if it takes a while for the consequences to come a-knockin.’ In “Granite State,” Jesse and Andrea both paid for what they started way back in Season Three.breaking-bad-granite-state-andrea-dies-todd

And speaking of reaping what you sow, Skyler also finds herself punished for some poor decision-making, first giving the police her best Catatonic Skyler and then passing her time with booze and cigarettes, as she tends to do when she’s particularly upset. Now, with Walt out of the picture, she has no one to blame but herself for the mess she’s in. (I wonder how those breakfasts with Walter Jr. are going now.) Like Jesse and Walt, “Granite State” finds Skyler in a prison, of sorts, without putting any of these characters jailed in the traditional sense. She has the police outside, watching her every move, and then Todd and friends drop by in ski masks, threatening harm to Skyler and/or Holly if she were to mention “the woman at the car wash” to the police.

It’s a chilling scene, one that makes it clear that Skyler will probably never feel completely safe — there’s always a chance she’ll find masked men in the nursery, and always will be. But she handles it smartly, telling Todd what he wants to hear (and presumably following through). Skyler handles these situations better than Jesse, better than Walt. She doesn’t make waves. She doesn’t let her emotions get in the way. She makes only tiny motions, the kind that are least likely to get her killed. She’s able to follow orders when she knows that doing otherwise is likely to end in punishment. Compare and contrast to Jesse, who should have known that a botched escape would mean death to Brock and/or Andrea. Skyler doesn’t even know Todd, but she’s smart enough not to cross him.breaking-bad-granite-state-anna-gunn-skyler-smoking-drink

And while everyone else is in New Mexico, facing the direst of consequences for what Walt has done, he’s made a safe getaway to another “New” state — New Hampshire, the “Granite State.” Granite is a hard, tough substance, a crystalline rock — and this is one tough episode, finding all of these characters in a granite-like state. Walt, of course, gets off easiest, considering, though he’s suitably miserable in his isolated cabin in the woods. He offers the vacuum cleaner salesman $10,000 to play cards with him for two hours. (The tough negotiator wheedles it down to one.) A man with such big ambitions now having to pay a virtual stranger for an hour of amusement is tragic enough on its own, and again, this could have been an ending for the series. Like so many episodes, a few tweaks could have made “Granite State” the series finale. Can these characters possibly be punished further? The cancer, too, is taking its toll on Walt, largely untreated.

Finally, Walt gets the brilliant idea to mail a box full of cash to Walter Jr.’s friend Louis, foolishly believing that his family can somehow use this money without attracting the attention of the police. Mike’s attempts to save a nest egg for his granddaughter already highlighted this folly, and a phone call to Walter Jr. confirms what we already know — Walt’s family has no want for this blood money anyway. The phone call between the two Walters is one of the episode’s highlights, proving to Walt that he has indeed lost his family. Walt flirts with the idea of turning himself in, again, and sits down at the bar for a final drink. And that’s when “Granite State” takes a thrilling, brilliant turn.breaking-bad-granite-state-walter-jr-phone-call-walt-rj-mitteI hadn’t expected to see Gretchen and Elliot again. The idea never even occurred to me. But of course Breaking Bad has to come full circle, and what started it all? Walt’s banishment from Gray Matter. Gretchen and Elliot appear on Charlie Rose, dismissing Walt’s contribution to Gray Matter (and giving us a taste of the rest of the world’s reaction to Heisenberg). Walt’s squeezed napkin is enough to tell us that he won’t take his reputation being slighted like this. The police show up, but too late — and the show’s theme music gives the final moments a distinctly cinematic touch, like when we hear a familiar movie theme in the sequel. It’s that “Aw, yeah!” moment where we know things are kicking in to high gear. It’s the kind of thing that would happen in Breaking Bad: The Movie.

So that’s what finally sends him racing back to New Mexico, on the lam, with a firearm in his trunk, to get his ricin. I had previously guessed that it was revenge on Jesse, reacquiring his millions from Uncle Jack, and/or finding out his family was in danger. I didn’t guess that Gretchen and Elliot would motivate it.

It’s still unclear whether Gretchen and Elliot will be major players in the series finale — it’s not likely that they’ll have a lot of screen time, given that they’ve only appeared in a handful of episodes and it’d be strange to spend too much of the finale with them. But, like Andrea, their importance to the motivations of a major character outweighs the number of episodes they’ve actually appeared in, so it feels exactly right that Breaking Bad should find a reason to include them in the final hour. Walt now has two businesses he’s started that have moved on without him, and since patching things up with his family seems out of the question, he now appears to be ready to go out with a bang. Or multiple bangs, perhaps. Uncle Jack has to go down, Lydia must be dealt with, and something’s going to happen between Jesse and Walt, because it’s the series finale. As for what will happen, it’s anybody’s guess. What state of mind is Walt in now? Will he want to redeem himself, or make his name more notorious than ever? Either way, I’m delighted that Gretchen and Elliot are a factor.breaking-bad-granite-state-gretchen-elliot

Rather than bide its time until the season finale, Breaking Bad went in a much more interesting direction, spending the last six episodes dealing with stuff that a show like Dexter would have saved until that last episode. Now, in the seventh an penultimate episode, Breaking Bad allows for the kind of offbeat episode you rarely see on television. It’s grim, and it doesn’t tread water the way TV episodes do. TV plots move forward, of course, but they can only go so far — usually they have to reset things to the status quo. Hank and Marie have to remain in the dark, Skyler must be obedient and keep quiet, Walt and Jesse must find reasons to cook together, because that’s the show. Except… not anymore. Breaking Bad has, bit by bit, broken down every expectation we have from an episode of Breaking Bad, and now, in “Granite State,” it’s totally free of the TV shackles, and instead moves forward the way the plot of a movie does.

It’s jarring to see the lives of these character finally unravel in a cinematic way — not slowly, but with the pace and urgency and stakes of a film. “Granite State” is a creative risk at this point in the series’ run, and I’m guessing that many fans may not have liked it. “Ozymandias” was a tough act to follow, but I’m glad there was a more ponderous episode before what I can only imagine will be a breathless finale. Yes, these people are all being tortured in ways that may feel excessively cruel, given what they’ve gone through already. Perhaps the last season should have been called Breaking Even Worse.breaking-bad-granite-state-betsy-brandt-grieving

But it’s also exciting to see these characters in such wildly different places than we ever could have expected — Jesse, locked up in a far worse prison than the federal one he’s always narrowly escaped; Walt, isolated in icy New Hampshire; Skyler, a single mom ravaged by the press and occasionally threatened by masked psychopaths who stop by in the dead of night; Walter Jr., the kind of kid who tells his dad to die after fighting so hard to save his life in early seasons. Who would have guessed?

I have no gripes with “Granite State,” a quietly brilliant episode that isolates the core cast members in various prisons. Walt is the only one with the ability to escape his, even if this escape will likely end with him in an actual prison (if he doesn’t die first). My one qualm is that it gives the short shrift to Marie, who didn’t get much time to grieve over Hank in “Ozymandias,” and here does almost nothing. Sure, we all know that Marie is heartbroken at the loss of her hubby, and whatever’s going on with her probably isn’t as pressing as what we see in “Granite State.” I do hope, however, that she gets a big moment or two in the finale, because she’s the one character who hasn’t quite had her due in this final season. Her arc isn’t quite wrapped up the way everyone else’s is.

But as the Emmys wisely confirmed last night, Breaking Bad is television’s best drama. It has certainly lived up to that in the past few episodes, and there’s no reason to think that we aren’t gearing up for one seriously epic series finale on every level.

So take that, Dexter.

Grade: Abreaking-bad-granite-state*

1 reply »

  1. I just finally watched this episode and the finale last night. Andrea’s death affected me far more than any other on the show, partly because it was shocking and partly because of Jesse’s reaction to it. Obviously it was upsetting to see Hank get murdered, but as a DEA agent, it was something I’d expected might happen by the end of the series. Likewise, the murder of Drew Sharp was a gut-punch, but it wasn’t a character we had any connection with. Andrea’s murder, and what it means to Jesse, was huge.

    The other factor was how unnecessary it was. Uncle Jack’s gang could have easily gotten Jesse back in line by threatening her or other means, but they figured it was just as simple to kill her. That’s totally harrowing.

    And in retrospect after watching the finale, I think it was necessary to give Jesse that extra motivation to kill Todd. Sure, we wouldn’t have begrudged him for killing the guy who murdered a little boy and held him prisoner, but it would have felt like a truly dark place for Jesse to go. Avenging Andrea’s murder made it almost cleansing for him.

Thoughts?

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